“WE A R E A LL M I R RO R S .”
eeting Monica Lek for the first time was one of those surreal experiences that seemed almost like a movie, played back in slow motion. She appeared out of a thick veil of fog and lights, poised with the glamour of an old hollywood starlet wearing dark, crushed velvet and some form of silk robe. Though her soft voice was continually drowned out by the roar of the speakers, her lively facial expressions were marked with energized hand motions that allowed the conversation to flow without misinterpretation. It was her birthday party, thrown in bakery-by-day turned to a pulsing, underground dance affair. When she isn’t planning exotically themed underground discos, she’s traversing the globe, documenting real people
with the precision of a photojournalist and the eye of a painter. She discusses her work, inspiration, and what its like to live in a world that is ever in flux, where the home is less of a place and more of an idea.
cause there is a lot of nature. Fields, mountains,. My grandma was living with me and raised me since my parents were working all the time; night, day and morning.
Where are you from originally? I’m from Barcelona. I was born in Tarragona, another city close to Barcelona which belongs to Catalonia. But I moved to Barcelona when I was fifteen, so I always say I am from Barcelona.
How about Barcelona in contrast? It was great for me, I was wishing to go to Barcelona where I can really make my dreams come true. When you’re finishing high school you’re dreaming of going to university and making this life you see in the movies. I was like a dreamer.
What was it like growing up there? Tarragona was a really small village actually. I had to create my own role because it’s a really small village with only one store for produce fruit, one super market, one shoe maker. Which is really good, now I appreciate it. Its great to have grown up there be-
What made you chose New York? I came to New York in 2006 with my family to celebrate New Years and Christmas. It was like a dream. It was like that image they create in movies of New York. My parents wanted to do all these touristy things, and I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna
go to Brooklyn.” And I remember walking through the park, and past the video store right here and seeing all these young, talented beings, and talking with people, it was so inspiring and creating an illusion of this lived New York. I also moved for the heart. I was with my ex-girlfriend when she moved here, and at the beginning it was like, lets just see what happens.
tion and film for three years.
What about photography made you chose it as your medium? I think movies. I grew up an only child, no brothers or sisters, so I watched a lot of movies, and I wanted to create those images. It happened very naturally, I grabbed a Contax when I was fifteen years old and started to photograph. I never really studied photography ever, I studied art direction and I studied in Barcelona first, two years of cinema production, but when I was in production I decided that I needed to create. which is when I studied art direc-
What is this documentary about? It’s about a drag queen, he/she’s a transgender and undergoing this process. For a month I’ve been following her, and it was incredible and exhausting and a lot of things. I didn’t know her beforehand, it was like throwing a coin. My very good friend Melie is from Turkey, he’s like my brother. I was back home and I started developing this idea of doing a documentary with him in Istanbul. He told me, “Oh there is this drag queen, really interesting, that I see at night and he’s well known in the scene,
And you do some film work as well? I’ve always been shooting small projects, music videos. Just for friendship and love, not really serious stuff. And now I’ve just started my first documentary, that I’ve been shooting in Turkey. I’m definitely going for directing documentary now.
it would be nice to make a documentary about her.” I said, “Lets do it.” I came to Istanbul with the chance that she may not want to do it. When did you shoot it? This was in August. During all of the protests? Yes. Your project “My Neighbors” brought you back to New York to capture the street culture and explore the people living right next to you. What brought you back to New York specifically to do this project? Why not Barcelona for example? I shot “My Neighbors” a year and a half ago. I wanted to define artificiality versus authenticity. I was pushed to work when I arrived here. I started working in fashion,
assisting photographers and being in the fashion world I started realizing how everything is an illusion; makeup, clothing, i don’t know what. I like to look for the real stuff, the characters. I asked myself, “What is New York? Is it this bullshit bubble really?” So when I didnt have anything to do, I decided to explore the Bronx, Harlem, not knowing what would happen. It’s super dangerous, it’s like another planet. Where you scared for your safety? Once I had to hide in a supermarket, because there’s people that see you take a picture and they start shouting and I’m like, “Okay, Monica thats it.” Its crazy shit happening in the Bronx, its new york but were in a bubble. I like to push myself to these limits. I like to put myslf in this situation and say “until the stop me”. I wanted to portray the “other” New York, the real New York. Not this bubble. So theres these things I wanted to distinguish between a New York with no makeup, and people that you haven’t seen on a screen. People live here, and they don’t know whats five minutes outside. Drugs, people dying and starving. Did you ask permission? I would. I would talk to them. I have so many great stories; men that wanted to marry me, this woman that said she used to sing with Billie Holiday, that woman with the braids from the black and white series. She was singing to me. I felt she was off a little. Then there’s that guy giving me the finger. He was the one that was yelling, “Hey! Skinny white! Skinny white!” What about the woman in the flower garden? (Pulls out postcard) Actually I’m here in New York because the the embassy of Spain contacted me while in Turkey, saying they were doing a show in DC “Vaiven” (or Come and Go) they found me through a newspaper. And they picked ten pieces and flew me here. After I came back to New York. They told me it was like from a Woody Allen movie. (the flower photo) Does your own cultural back-
ground influence your process and the creation of your work? Its hard to say, my identity is Spanish, but none of my photos have a focused identity. I feel like change and I’m observing so many things, I see beauty in so many things. My background has influence but I don’t know in which way yet. I have self portraits. They are nudes, because I love the body. I love dealing with femininity, underwater, the sea, and reflections on the skin. I was with family on vacation in Turkey in the Aegean Sea, and I was shooting underwater video for two weeks, I was like a mermaid. The reflection of the sun projecting on my skin. I’ve been shooting all these patterns which are numbers, it kind of like metaphysics. What effect has New York had on you and your work? I’m so grateful to have lived in this city. I’m coming back in January. Its that love hate relationship. It is. It’s tiring. For me to really create, or have a daughter or son it cannot be here. I have to go outside of here. I’m shooting in Turkey because its real out there, and then I come to New York to show it to the world. You have a platform here that you don’t elsewhere. Exactly. It’s the city of chances. But the process of creation is happening outside. I’ve found the balance. I wanna spend more time here when I return. I wanna be more stable to acheive something here that I can then work and travel. For my sanity. Which is kind of happening now. But I always need to travel for my sanity. What brough you to Havana? My friend Armando who lives here and was actaully the first person I met when I moved here. He is my father, brother, lover, everything. He is Cuban, and thats basically how it happened. He gave me a place to stay, and I had another friend Juan Carlos. So I said, “Let’s do it.” It was super tough, coming from New York where there is ev-
ery kind of yogurt, everything you don’t need and then you arrive to Cuba where y ou fight to get water, tomato. Every morning I had to boil water, wait til it cools to drink. No coffee, no basic needs. But i’m a documentary photographer, I adapt to these situations. I would wake up, boil my water, there was one fruit store everything was rotten. Living with a family of four children. And seeing the mom cooking and how there wasn’t enough food, and the children were hungry. I would go out and take pictures and when I came back they had saved me food. And I’m like no this is for you, I already ate, and they’re like no this plate has your name on it. So I learned a lot. I would wander through Havana Vieja, walk 6km every day. I couldn’t use my credit card, and had limited money so I would just walk everywhere. In one sentence, express what you are seeking in your work. I’m seeking mirrors. I’m just trying to show that everything is a mirror. Everything is the same. I’m trying to say that everything is a mirror, we are mirrors, if you smile at me I smile at you.